I’m not sure what I expected out of Bellinzona, and I’m not entirely sure what I got either.
Bellinzona is the smallest of a triad of towns in the Ticino, or Italian region of Switzerland. The other two towns, Lugano and Locarno, and more well-know and frequented by visitors. Situated on gorgeous lakes and providing an entry to the Lake Como area, these two towns are typical vacation spots for the German and French Swiss. Bellinzona, on the other hand, is smaller and only has a canal front, and serves as a bit of a transport hub for the other small towns around it.
I chose Bellinzona to visit, primarily for one reason: CASTLES.
Despite its small size, Bellinzona boasts not one, not two, but THREE medieval castles. In fact, these castles are the only remaining example of late medieval military architecture in the Alps, so that whole area has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Bellinzona was Italian until 1503, when it was occupied by the French. Most of the surrounding areas were conquered by the Swiss in the 1400s – Bellinzona held out so long in part because of its splendid castles and also because it was ruled by the particularly powerful (and stubborn) dukes of Milan until its occupation.
After Luzern, I was also ready for a town with fewer tourists, because good Lord those things can be annoying.
The train ride from Luzern was so-so until we entered that Ticino Valley, when suddenly a switch flipped and the landscape became incredible. We were clearly entering the warmer region of Switzerland – snowcapped peaks were replaced with lush green mountains and dry rockbed streams.
The town was small, and my hotel was thankfully directly across the street from the train station. If you happen to be in Bellinzona, I highly recommend the Hotel and Spa Internazionale – a luxurious building that cost only a small bit more than the Budget Ibis I stayed at in Luzern (not going to lie, a big draw was the free spa hotel. I spent a good chunk of time enjoying the fancy and slightly confusing amenities – I’m not sure why Europeans are so big on sweating, but it was fun!).
I started out by wandering towards town, and after only walking for about five minutes (felt much longer due to the heat) I came across a massive rock outcropping…with a castle on top. Apparently I had found Castello di Montebello (built in sections between 1200-1400), built right in the middle of town and looking straight out of a movie scene.
Incongruously, I was visiting during the Bellinzona Beatles Days, and a band was crooning “Hey Jude” in an off-tune French accent to an empty plaza.
Anyways, I made the genius decision to climb the stairs straight up the middle of the mountain and five floors and a heart attack later I found myself right inside the freakin’ castle. At that moment I decided to let myself be ten again and frolicked around my castle happily, dictating orders (in my head) to the paeans around me. You can climb all around the castle walls, the turrets, the grotto – there were even people having picnics and naps in the abundant green spaces.
From Montebello I had a great view of the other two castles, Castelgrande (first mentioned in the 6th century, but current structure was built in the 1200s) and Castello di Sasso Corbaro (built in 1479), which are situated like stepping stones up the mountain. I wandered down a long, long set of stairs and ended up in the center of town, where I visited the Chiesa Collegiata di San Pietro e San Stefano (Collegiate Church – for which college I have no clue) and the town center circle.
Here, differences between French and German Switzerland and Italian Switzerland became more obvious. On the latter part of the train ride I had started to see some of the very few signs of lower class life I’ve seen in Switzerland – more industrial sites and migrant labor housing, skinnier cows, less well-maintained houses – and Bellinzona was clearly more of a working class town than Luzern or Geneva, with an abundance of budget shops and small grocery stores. The graffiti was more abundant than in Geneva (for whatever reason, the Swiss love their graffiti) and more, well, phallic in nature. Groups of teenagers hung out on street corners listening to Italian rap, so that the city seemed to have its own soundtrack – a fun, though slightly uncomfortable soundtrack. The houses were brightly painted and the historic churches lacked some of the stilted formality of the German style. And unlike Geneva, Luzern, and many other Swiss cities that popped up along lakes and river mouths, Bellinzona lacked a water-central design, which, in combination with being built up along hills, made the town feel less organized.
After walking a bit and grabbing a coconut gelato to fortify myself - for all good travelers know that gelato is the ultimate power snack - I found the stairs that led to the second castle, Castelgrande. Yes, the stairs were located just up "Castle Alley."
In terms of architecture, Castelgrande was less impressive than Montebello - though it did have TWO drawbridges. In my exhaustion and the heat haze I must have circled the grounds at least half a dozen times, climbing the uneven stone steps to peer through the arrow slits, absent-mindedly comparing the massive wooden drawbridges to the faded welcome mats outside my own abode, and perching myself on the castle walls to take in the scene. Montebello sat below me, towering still over the small town. In the far distance was a shining large lake; in the opposite direction, lush mountains and Sasso Corbaro. Needless to say, what Castelgrande lacked in architectural flair, it more than made up for in views.
Ideally, I would have climbed up to Sasso Corbaro as well, and believe me, it hurts my pride to say that I didn't. However, it was a 45 minute walk straight up hill and my feet, aching in my sandals, strongly disagreed with my pride. Instead, I grabbed some cheap dinner (grapes, Sanpelligrino, and some smelly cheese from a street vendor) and retreated to the tiny balcony of my hotel. The weather had been conveniently clear up until now, but as I watched the steamy day slide away into dusk, fat rain droplets started falling. I let them leave their fingerprints on my journal as I stared up at Sasso in the sunset, daydreaming about what life must have been like back in the days of castles.